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Candidate Q&A: Newark mayoral candidate Ras Baraka talks rebranding with NJBIZ

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Those who can remember Newark both in its industrial heyday and its years of decline have to admit one thing: The high-profile tenure of former Mayor Cory Booker put the city back on the map. Where it goes from here will be decided in May, when it will pick between Shavar Jeffries and Ras Baraka. NJBIZ got a chance recently to sit down with both candidates to talk about some of the past, current and future economic development issues in the city. So let's get down to business with Ras Baraka.

Newark mayoral candidate

Ras Baraka,44,is a former deputy mayor. He currently is a South Ward councilman and principal of Central High School.

Q: What is the current state of business and economic development in Newark?

I think because of the Urban (Transit) Hub tax credits, the whole Grow NJ economic plan that's moving forward in New Jersey, that's actually prompted New York to respond to its tax-free zones. We try to take their business; they try to keep it. I think Newark has benefited from that tremendously over the last few years, and it's going to continue to benefit.

The only problem is, I don't think that business is directed, under a particular vision. People are coming to Newark particularly because we have these credits available to them and we are like a mold of clay. We're not Hoboken. We're not Jersey City. We're too far away from New York to really benefit from it and too close to compete with it. We have to form our own identity here in Newark and businesses and companies are coming, but they need some direction. We need to let them know what we want, how we want it, and they have to be a part of what we think is going to grow our economy here, not just simply coming to Newark to benefit from our tax credits.

Q: What is its future?

Our plan is not to do what has been done, which is just to reach out for big businesses and big box industry to come to the city.

I think we've been trying to live under New York's shadow for too long. We can't compete with New York; we're too close to it. We're going to have to find our own identity, and once we find our own identity and we begin to do those things good, we rebrand ourselves.

Q: What's the No. 1 thing you'll do to bring new businesses to Newark?

The infrastructure itself attracts business to the city. The Budweisers and (others) came to Newark because we had great water, not because we had a charismatic mayor. So what we have to do is leverage the clusters in our community.

So the plan is not to just go out and cheerlead for business to come to the city but to roll up our sleeves and do with what we have, what's good and what we do best and begin to develop that. Create business and interest that way. People want to come onto a train that's moving.

Q: What should business owners already in Newark expect from your administration?

We have a robust plan centered around small business development … The idea is that we begin to focus on small businesses to help them grow, help them expand, because while Panasonic comes and brings 100 jobs, maybe 50, 40 jobs, those businesses hire 100 percent Newarkers. (Panasonic) might hire 10 percent Newarkers. Those businesses hire 100 percent Newarkers, and we have to grow those businesses and we have to do something about their ability to navigate City Hall.

Q: What are your thoughts on Newark's paid sick-leave ordinance?

I was one of the supporters of it initially. I think it's a progressive ordinance. Jersey City picked it up. New York picked it up. We picked it up. The idea is (it's) a public health issue … We support that, but we also don't want to hurt smaller businesses.

We are going to have small business assessment teams that are going to reach out with small businesses in the city to help them navigate the ordinance.

Q: From an economic development standpoint, what was your assessment of the Booker administration?

The mayor clearly let everyone know the city is open for business … I've always said my analogy with Mayor Booker is that he turned the lights on in the theater, opened up the curtain, filled the theater with hundreds of thousands of people, (and) now it's time for us to perform.

Q: Again from an economic development standpoint, what makes you uniquely qualified to lead Newark?

I have the experience … I was the deputy mayor. I was a councilman twice. I've worked in government. I know the experience. I've brought people together — not just people who agree with me but people who also agree and disagree.

Q: Correct one misperception of you that's currently out there.

People say I'm anti-business … That's the biggest lie.

That mythology is there to scare people and intimidate people who say, 'Oh, the businesses are not going to come to Newark.'

First of all, the businesses are already here. The idea is how do we connect them to the residents so that you grow and that you can actually work at some of the businesses and, more importantly, start up your own damn business. To me, that's the meat of it. That's what I want.


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